Title: The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott
Author: Kelly O’Connor McNees
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from the author’s publicist
First line: Louisa May Alcott approached the ticket window of the Boston passenger station clutching a large case and a black parasol.
Louisa May Alcott wrote one of the most beloved novels of all time, Little Women. The book has many autobiographical elements, but Ms. Alcott was a fiercely private woman who kept to herself and remained unmarried her entire life. Did she ever fall in love? This is the question explored by Kelly O’Connor McNees in this beautifully written novel that imagines a stolen summer, a summer in which Louisa loses her heart and is forced to choose between her desire for independence and her love of a man.
Like many women, Little Women is one of my favorite books – one that I first discovered in grade school and have re-read many times throughout my life. I love the movies, love the characters – and since I grew up with three sisters and no brothers, felt like the book was written just for me. And Jo is one of the greatest literary heroines of all time; who doesn’t love Jo March?
While the idea of a stolen summer involving a love affair is an invention of the author’s, this novel is extensively researched and gives the reader much insight into the interior workings of the Alcott family. Louisa’s father, Bronson, was an author and philosopher, one who was obsessed with the life of the mind and spirit. As a result, he believed the mundane things in life – like earning a living or putting food on his family’s table – were beneath him and not worth spending his time and energy on. His family bore the brunt of his philosophy. I found his character very frustrating – I wanted to shake him for his neglect of his family, for the unneeded burden his wife and daughters had to shoulder.
Louisa was an unusual girl for her times – she never married, and put her desire for independence and a career ahead of the conventional expectations placed on a woman living in the days leading up to the Civil War. She was determined to be seen as a person, not just as a girl. She wanted her writing to be taken seriously, and after seeing the stress her father’s lifestyle placed on her mother, was determined to avoid having her destiny wrapped up in a man’s decisions.
While the love story was a central part of the plot, this novel is much more than a romance – it’s a character study of a fiercely strong young woman determined to face the world on her own terms. Her love of reading, writing, and learning; her desire to educate herself and chart her own course – these things made me love Louisa, kept me turning the pages to discover what would happen. McNees is a talented wordsmith, placing the reader into this small New Hampshire town at a time when the country is on the brink of war and people’s ideas about race and gender are just beginning to change. After finishing the book, I was driven to the author’s site and other sites on the internet to learn more about Louisa May Alcott and her father and the times she lived in, and only the best kind of historical fiction provokes that reaction in me.